Plant-based calcium sources
I’m often asked if I get enough calcium through my plant-strong diet, and the short answer is oh-yeah! But the longer answer is a bit more complex, and breaks down why calcium is important, where to get it and what to do if you’re deficient (you’re not), so that you, my plant-based reader, can feel confident about meeting your calcium needs, and can learn how to find the best plant-based sources of calcium.
Elsie the Cow
We all learned about “drinking milk for building strong bones” from Elsie the Cow — poor girl — she was used as an innocent participant in the marketing efforts of the dairy industry to try and correct a non-existent problem: calcium deficiency.
Marketing experts for the dairy industry had to create the fear that people would develop fragile bones without calcium, uniquely concentrated in milk. The dairy industries in the USA spend over $206 million dollars annually to spread the myth that dairy foods are essential to avoid becoming sick, and therefore, a healthy choice. They say that few Americans consume sufficient calcium, thereby increasing their risk for major chronic diseases such as osteoporosis. Their scare tactics are working. Today, the average person consumes more than 593 pounds of dairy products a year. That’s a LOT of gouda.
First, the basics. What’s calcium?
Calcium, the most abundant mineral in the body, is mostly found in the bones and teeth. It is essential for good bone health, tip-top nerve and muscle function, and hearty cardiovascular health. Calcium also makes up about three percent of the earth’s crust (wow!) and is one of the most basic components of most animals and plants.
As a matter of fact, all minerals, including calcium, originate from the earth and enter animals through plants, which absorb this element through their roots, and then into their stems, leaves, flowers and fruits. What does this mean? Animals then eat the plant parts to get essential minerals and calcium. The more plants you eat, the more minerals you get. Easy, right?
Plants are loaded with so many minerals and so much calcium, that this is sufficient enough to grow the largest animals that walk the earth — elephant, hippopotamus, giraffe, horse and cow. These massive bones are formed with just the raw materials from plants, so it is safe to assume that there is sufficient calcium in plant-based foods to grow the relatively small bones of us mere mortals. Most of our ancestors have grown to their normal-sized adult frames without the aid of milk (other than mother’s milk) and without calcium pill supplements.
Our bones function as the storage warehouse for our body’s calcium, delivering this mineral to the bloodstream for use by the heart and other organs. So when we eat a diet rich in calcium, we know that our bodies will work to maintain our normal blood pressure, regulate blood clotting, and work to prevent cancers of the digestive tract. Calcium is also associated with relieving mood swings, food cravings, and decreasing the pain, tenderness and bloating associated with PMS.
Do we get enough?
There has never been a case of calcium deficiency ever reported from people who eat mostly plants. A plant-strong diet is more than sufficient to meet the nutritive needs of growing kids and adults. Don’t make the common mistake of believing that cow’s milk is a good and necessary source of calcium. Drinking milk from other species has been linked to heart disease, cancer, type-2 diabetes, arthritis, and infectious disease.
No amount of cute milk mustaches can take away the fact that calves are removed from their mothers within hours of being born. They are fed milk substitutes and sold as veal calves, only after spending months chained at the neck unable to walk, stretch their legs, and even turn around.
The March 2005 issue of the Journal of Pediatrics concluded that “scant evidence supports nutrition guidelines focused specifically on increasing milk or other dairy product intake for promoting child and adolescent bone mineralization.”
The October 2006 issue of the British Medical Journal found that dairy products are of no real-life benefit for strengthening bones. They go a step further and say that populations consuming the most cow’s milk and other dairy products have among the HIGHEST rates of osteoporosis and hip fractures later in life.
Harvard did a 12-year study of 78,000 women, and those who drank milk three times a day actually broke more bones than women who rarely drank milk. According to Dr. John McDougall, “Populations around the world that eat rich diets loaded with animal proteins (as in the USA, England, Israel, Finland, Sweden etc.) have high rates of osteoporosis, while people in countries who consume small amounts of animal proteins (including dairy foods), such as those living in Asian and African countries, have strong bones and little osteoporosis.”
This should all be enough to reassure us of the adequacy of a plant-based diet, and that billions of people grow normal adult skeletons without consuming milk or calcium supplements. Yet, countless people continue to fall prey to the millions of dollars in advertising and marketing, and buy products that are making them sick.
The calcium piggy bank
Calcium works the same way as a savings account. Eating calcium-rich foods builds up stores of calcium in young bones which ultimately helps to maintain strong bones for life. Getting lots of calcium when you’re young, ensures that your body doesn’t have to withdraw too much from your bones. Bones have their own calcium bank account, so depositing as much calcium as possible during the younger years will help to reach peak bone mass. By the end of the teen years, the account is closed! That’s it! You can’t add any more calcium to your bones. You can only maintain what is already there to help your bones stay healthy.
So what happens to all that calcium?
We tend to lose calcium regularly through sweat and urine, and it is renewed from our bones or our diet. We are always building up new bones, at least until the age of 30 or so, and at that point, we can thank mother nature for breaking down more bones than we build up. We all know that the loss of bone calcium can lead to fragile bones, osteopenia or osteoporosis. How quickly this happens depends, partly, on the kind of calcium you eat, in combination with diet and other lifestyle choices.
Also, getting calcium from plant-based foods is far more efficient than getting it from yogurt, cheese or milk. When you drink a glass of milk, 1/3 of the calcium is lost through urinary elimination. Even worse for cheese – your body loses 2/3 of the calcium in cheese. By contrast, when you eat plant-based foods, your body can use up to 60% of their calcium content.
How do we hold onto it?
1. Reduce calcium losses by avoiding excess salt.
Calcium from our bones tends to dissolve into the bloodstream, then pass through the kidneys into the urine. Salty foods can greatly increase calcium loss through the kidneys, so if you reduce your sodium intake to one to two grams per day, you’ll hold onto calcium better. Avoid salty snack foods, and watch the salt sprinkling on the stove and table.
2. Get your protein from plants, not animals.
Fish, poultry, red meat, eggs, and dairy products (animal protein)—tends to leach calcium from the bones and encourages its passage into the urine. Plant protein, on the other hand—in beans, grains, and vegetables—doesn’t…!
Daily recommended allowance of calcium
Still worried that you won’t get enough calcium with plant foods? There are many plant-based sources of calcium – and it’s not hard to reach your daily calcium requirements by eating these common (and delicious!) foods – usually just 2-4 servings a day is more than enough.
What about vitamin D?
Vitamin D enhances the absorption of calcium, so make sure you are getting enough. How? 20 minutes of direct sunlight every day in spring and summer, and a daily vitamin D supplement in the winter months.
40 Plant-Based Sources of Calcium
Vegetables (per cup)
Bok choy (cooked) – 330 mg
Kale – 180mg
Bean sprouts – 320 mg
Spinach (cooked) – 250 mg
Collard greens (cooked) – 260 mg
Mustard greens (cooked) – 100 mg
Turnip greens (cooked) – 200 mg
Swiss chard (cooked) – 100 mg
Seaweed (Wakame) – 120mg
Okra – 130 mg
Broccoli – 45 mg
Fennel – 45 mg
Artichoke – 55 mg
Celery – 40 mg
Leeks – 55 mg
Nuts, nut butters and seeds
Almonds (1/4 cup) – 95 mg
Brazil nuts (1/4 cup) – 55 mg
Hazelnuts (1/4 cup) – 55 mg
Almond butter (1 tbsp) – 43 mg
Sesame seeds (1 tbsp) – 63 mg
Tahini (1 tbsp) – 65 mg
Cereals (calcium fortified, ½ cup) – 250 to 500 mg
Amaranth (cooked, ½ cup) – 135 mg
Brown rice (cooked, 1 cup) – 50 mg
Quinoa (cooked, 1 cup) – 80 mg
Legumes and beans
Chickpeas (cooked, 1 cup) – 80 mg
Pinto beans (cooked, 1 cup) – 75 mg
Soy beans (cooked, 1 cup) – 200 mg
Tofu (soft or firm, 4 oz) – 120 – 400mg
Tempeh (1 cup) – 150 mg
Navy beans (1 cup) – 110 mg
White beans (cooked, 1 cup) – 140 mg
Fruit (per cup)
Figs (dried) – 300 mg
Apricots (dried) – 75mg
Kiwi – 60mg
Rhubarb (cooked) – 350 mg
Orange – 70 mg
Prunes – 75 mg
Blackberries – 40 mg
The bottom line is this: No one disputes that cow’s milk is an excellent food source…for calves. This amazing food is absolutely essential for baby calves in their first few months of life, but once they are weaned, they will never drink milk again. Guess what? That is the same for EVERY mammalian species on the planet. Why, then, do we continue to drink it? There are so many excellent plant-based sources of calcium to choose from. I’d like to read your thoughts in the comments below!